Jenny Carr’s son Tosh was a second-grader last year. It used to be a challenge to motivate him to read, she said.
But then pARTners brought in artists to help teach about animals.
All second-grade students in the Teton County School District learn about the animals of Jackson Hole through a variety of units, including an art project.
Tosh, “obsessed with nature already,” Carr said, got hooked. Through research and additional reading — for fun — he started learning more and eventually volunteered at the Teton Raptor Center as a junior docent. He also draws birds and wants to turn his art into note cards to benefit the Raptor Center.
“I just feel like this project is not only supporting academics, but also created this little citizen who is volunteering and wants to create a way to raise a nonprofit,” Carr said. “He’s engaged at a higher level. There’s so much that the kids get to learn that’s more hands-on experiential than just reading, writing and arithmetic.”
Supporters of the arts in Jackson Hole are clear: The arts should remain a priority in local schools.
“I feel strongly that art access is learning for everyone,” said Ruth Moran, executive director of pARTners. “It’s a vehicle for change, and it allows people to have perspective. There’s an emotional component to art that I think is really important.”
A nonprofit, pARTners coordinates collaborative projects between artists and schools to inspire interest, and even creative passion for the subject matter and for the arts. Moran said pARTners is a small organization — administered by her in conjunction with contracted artists — but last year it ran 42 projects in the schools.
“We can help increase the amount of creativity in the classroom and enable students to have exposure to local artists, which is also an additional support to teachers,” Moran said. “That’s a lot of kids we touch.”
Mark Nowlin, executive director of the Art Association of Jackson Hole, said his nonprofit was founded 50 years ago, when there wasn’t a lot of art in the schools.
“I think the majority of people recognize that the arts are the culmination of all the other pieces of education,” Nowlin said. “You can do well in math, but if you don’t realize that a Fibonacci sequence is the pattern of pinecones or sunflowers then you’re missing the point. Art is the form that resonates the most with the soul.”
What makes art unique, Nowlin said, is that “right” isn’t always clear.
“You gain confidence in making mistakes and trying again,” he said. “Everybody wants to get a 100 on the test, and in art not getting 100 gives you a lot of lessons. There are no memorized answers.”
An artistic community
Art is woven into everyday life in Jackson Hole. That’s one reason why arts education in the community remains so strong.
“In Jackson,” Moran said, “I feel like we are really lucky because we do have a community of artists. For such a rural town we have access to a lot of amazing art. I think there is a tremendous amount of art out there for people to experience, and we are very fortunate in that.”
Nowlin said that in a place as beautiful as western Wyoming it doesn’t come as a surprise that people value art.
Lyndsay McCandless, executive director of the Center of Wonder — a nonprofit that supports the arts community and creative leaders in town through grants, strategic visioning and advocacy — finds the connection between mountain sports and creativity to be one worth exploring.
“There’s an interesting crossover between being an extreme athlete and being extremely creative,” McCandless said. “And here in Jackson there’s such an incredible merging of athleticism and creativity.”
She compared the pursuit of mountain summits to the pursuit of art.
“I think you have to get in the same mindset to navigate up and down a mountain or a cliff as you do launching into your creative space,” McCandless said.
Local students are lucky: The caliber of their teachers is first-rate.
Moran sees firsthand the high quality of art teachers around the valley. She firmly believes that art “balances out other core subjects.”
“I work with all of them, and they are extremely hardworking,” Moran said of valley art teachers. “They put their heart and soul into teaching kids. They’re skilled in providing creative projects.”
Moran said teachers often say that visiting artists offer valuable experiences for students because they provide richer, more engaging experiences.
“We can approach learning from as many perspectives as possible,” Moran said. “So why wouldn’t you?”
Contrary to popular belief, Moran said, art is taught according to official standards and accountability, like any other subject.
The Journeys School’s Heidi Kohler said Jackson is a great place to be an art teacher.
“People here in Jackson seem to realize that we have this innate urge in us as human beings to create things and to respond to our surroundings visually,” Kohler said.
Before coming to Journeys School, Kohler spent time as an artist with pARTners, sharing watercolors, acrylics, oils and ceramics with students. She said she has “worked with a little bit of everything” whenever she has time.
Kohler finds art to be vital in the classroom in a variety of ways.
“It’s really important in schools because it serves as a bridge as to how kids can connect their learning across disciplines,” she said.
Other benefits, Kohler said, include learning from mistakes and reflecting on their work.
She said the art education community is strong. Teachers meet twice a year at the National Museum of Wildlife Art to “exchange wisdom and sometimes materials.”
“It makes an amazing difference, and the quality of education improves,” Kohler said. “We’re comfortable around each other and it’s easy to collaborate with other teachers.”
Moran said the community is lucky in general to have a “pretty innovative and great school district,” but Teton County School District No. 1 has challenges on the horizon with increasing enrollment and worries of funding cuts at the forefront.
“It puts pressure on schools in times of budget cuts,” Moran said. “And that impacts creativity.”
To accommodate more students in the coming school year Jackson Hole Middle School made schedule changes that made it impossible to fit in art for sixth-graders during the regular school day. Moran and others around the community intervened and are now attempting to provide art before school.
“We’re all trying to put our heads together and see what we can do to enhance their creative experience,” Moran said.
Always a target
Those in the artistic community often ponder why art is first on the budget chopping block when it clearly gives students skills that are valued in the workforce.
“Overall, our national education system is lacking in support of the arts and creative thinking,” McCandless said. “I find it crazy that people are showing over and over again that what so many businesses want and what we need in this world is people who can think creatively, imaginatively, innovatively, and that come up with new things and push the boundaries, while that’s the exact kind of skill set that is squeezed out of our schools.”
Art, Nowlin said, “isn’t perceived as an economic driver, even though it is.”
“High-level skills and knowledge aren’t enough to maintain a competitive edge,” Moran said. “What will set the American workforce apart from other workforces is creativity and innovation.”
But that doesn’t happen overnight. And some of it might have to do with how people view the word “creative.”
“People say to me all the time, ‘I’m not creative, I don’t get art. I don’t have a creative bone in my body,’” McCandless said. “There’s this really personal shutdown about that.”
But we shouldn’t let creativity, or the word itself, get boxed in.
“Creativity is a word that people throw out and think it’s easy and that it comes to you,” Moran said. “That’s not the case. It has to be fostered.
“You can be really smart, but if you’re not innovative … they’re just as important.”